Affordable Housing, Public Housing, and Nonexistent Housing: Cases Studies of Inequality in Race, Gender, and Socioeconomic Status 

Friday, March 31, 2023, 3:30 PM - 5:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Education; Gender; Labor and Working-Class; Local and Community History; Politics; Postwar; Social and Cultural; Urban and Suburban

Papers Presented

Affordable Does Not Mean Low-Income: Elderly Housing Development, Suburban Public Schools, and the Local Loopholes that Shaped Growth in Postwar Metropolitan Boston

While 20th century urban historians have ably documented processes of postwar suburban residential growth, spatial decentralization and deindustrialization, the field has often overlooked the role of suburban schools in these new formations of regional political economy. In focusing primarily on federal policy in this period, scholars have missed a critical political relationship at the grassroots—that of public schools and their local governments. This dynamic is particularly pronounced across the suburbs of metropolitan Boston, where school district lines are coterminous with town borders, and postwar residential growth boomed with the construction of Route 128, a suburban highway home to tech and development firms such as Polaroid, Raytheon, and Wang Laboratories, in 1951. As the residential populations grew, town governments had to contend with a new—and delicate—political balance: maintaining public services and a stable tax rate amid a rapidly expanding tax base comprised of affluent, predominantly white families with school-aged children. As town budgets climbed, so too did annual expenditures on public schools. State-wide, the growing racial and socioeconomic disparities between Boston and its suburbs became the focus of legislative action in 1969 with the passage of Chapter 40B, known as the Anti-Snob Zoning Act, which addressed the shortage of affordable housing in the suburbs by easing zoning rules and permit processes. I argue that towns responded to these state and local pressures by putting schools at the heart of the local political agenda, often through decisions of policy that--at first glance--appear unconnected to public education. In particular, the suburban response to Chapter 40B demonstrates how claims over schooling functioned as an implicit political strategy to manage growth and short-circuit state attempts at policy redress for racial and socioeconomic inequality. To comply with the law’s threshold that 10% of housing per town be affordable, suburbs construed this requirement in terms politically palatable to their middle-class, largely white demographic: Rather than multi-family units or apartments for low-income families with school-aged children, towns mostly built age and income-restricted elderly housing units, often occupied by current residents aged out of single-family homes. In prioritizing the senior population, often considered a less costly group to house thanks in part to the passage of Medicare in 1965, this approach also protected the town’s tax base by preventing against increased school enrollment. Predictably, this strategy did little to change the racial and socioeconomic profile of the region, as 40B had originally intended. Instead, it legitimized the concern for schools as a sacrosanct political rationale, able to provide plausible deniability to race-based claims of exclusion, and to obscure what were significant exertions of local wealth and power in subverting the state mandate for affordable housing. In recasting suburban schools at the intersection of local politics, state government and postwar spatial change, this paper argues that twentieth century urban history should take a more capacious view of the power of suburban schools to shape local political economy.

Presented By
Amy Wilson, New York University

Confronting Crises of Unhoused Individuals in Los Angeles, 1870–1910

A 2021 report from UCLA’s Luskin Center for History and Policy, titled “The Making of a Crisis: A History of Homelessness in Los Angeles,” refers to the city as “the homeless capital of the United States.” Because today’s uncertain times have caused LA’s rate of homelessness to increase by 50 percent over the previous five years, the report expresses urgency to address “an exceptionally complex phenomenon that has consistently vexed policymakers and scholars alike.” Even while noting that the “phenomenon of homelessness has a long history in Los Angeles,” the report’s historical perspective seems shortsighted. Its “History of Homelessness in Los Angeles” begins with “The Great Depression and World War II,” and devotes less than one page to events preceding the twentieth century. This paper seeks to fill those historical gaps and especially to put a human face on the phenomenon of homelessness in Los Angeles between 1870 and 1910—an earlier era of uncertainty. One of the best sources on the history of homelessness in Los Angeles is Kelly Lytle Hernández’s, “City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965” (2017). Although Hernández’s focus is incarceration, the phenomenon of homelessness figures prominently in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries because the Los Angeles Police Department waged war on individuals experiencing homelessness—deemed “tramps” and “hoboes” in the parlance of the day—by placing them in jail for vagrancy and disorderly conduct. This paper seeks to build upon Hernández’s seminal study by identifying some of the individuals who were arrested and jailed by the LAPD in the hopes of determining more of their personal stories and circumstances. One primary source is the decennial census of population, which enumerated those residing in the LA County Jail in 1880, 1890, and 1900. A second invaluable source are registers for the LA City Jail for 1906, 1907, and 1908—held by the LA City Archives, which provide the names of all persons booked and incarcerated there. Knowing the names of these inmates will allow cross-checking in various other sources, including U.S. Census records, Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System, Civil War Pension Records,, city directories, newspaper databases, and more. Records from the Civil War are especially important because of longstanding beliefs that many individuals experiencing homelessness in the late nineteenth century were Civil War veterans who had become alienated and disaffected, perhaps due to what we currently call post-traumatic stress disorder. Even today, the personal stories and circumstances of those experiencing homelessness in cities such as Los Angeles, New York, and Washington are largely unknown. It may be clichéd to say that members of homeless communities are just like any of us—perhaps unluckier or victims of forces beyond their control—but there is some truth to the cliché. This paper seeks to identify and bring to life some of the unhoused individuals incarcerated in Los Angeles in order to better understand how they confronted crises and struggled to survive in uncertain times.

Presented By
James I. Deutsch, Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

Republican (Black) Grasstops: Black Women, Urban Conservatism, and Public Housing Politics in the 1980s

In 1980, conservative Republican Ronald Reagan became United States' 40th President. Shortly after his presidency began, political operatives in the Republican Party worked to cultivate relationships within the black community to redress Reagan's low popularity within black communities nationwide. These operatives turned to Washington DC and developed connections with public housing activists who championed resident management and tenant ownership. Selectively appropriating these residents' call for (collective) ownership and autonomy, Republican representatives lauded these black women tenant activists, claiming they represented and shared Republican values for private property, self-sufficiency, and personal responsibility. This paper revisits this moment to present it as a watershed moment in conservative (black) populism. Blending archival research with interviews, I identify the specific ways conservatives used moral frames of deserving and undeserving families to reinforce their austerity policies in public housing and gain grassroots popular support. This paper also reveals how this moment retrenched black women's political marginality, even as conservative leaders attempted political inclusion. As Republican leaders selectively lifted the black women they supported, they simultaneously denounced most black public housing tenants as representatives of the underclass, a segment of the population they believed lacked morals and redemptive value. This paper highlights Republican leaders' selective depiction of exemplary versus normative black motherhood practices in public housing. This paper identifies Republican leaders' subjective analysis of black mothers as critical in the punitive public housing policy measures enacted in the 1980s (e.g., mass evictions, character-based tenant screening, demolitions). This paper concludes with the black feminist theoretical insights this case study provides. More specifically, this paper contends housing policy analysis results from the interplay between complex discursive meanings (e.g., gender, race, ideology) and material decisions (e.g., political decisions, funding). Lastly, this paper highlights how this black feminist theoretical perspective enables scholars to chart the evolution and reproduction of low-wage black women's continued marginalization in housing markets, even as political actors attempt to accommodate and include some low-wage black women.

Presented By
Rosemary Ndubuizu, Georgetown University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Marques Augusta Vestal, UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs

Presenter: James I. Deutsch, Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
James Deutsch is a curator and editor at the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (CFCH), where he has helped plan and develop public programs on California, China, Hungary, Peace Corps, Apollo Theater, Circus Arts, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Mekong River, U.S. Forest Service, World War II, Silk Road, and White House workers. In addition, he serves as an adjunct professor—teaching courses on American film history and folklore—in the American Studies Department at George Washington University. Deutsch has also taught American Studies classes at universities in Armenia, Belarus, Bulgaria, Germany, Kyrgyzstan, Norway, Poland, and Turkey. He has earned academic degrees from Williams College, University of Minnesota, Emory University, and George Washington University, and has published numerous articles and encyclopedia entries on a wide range of topics relating to homelessness. For instance, he has profiled five individuals experiencing homeless in the “Chronicling Culture in Crisis” series that appeared in Folklife, CFCH’s online magazine. He has also published several scholarly articles and presented at several scholarly conferences to help amplify the individuals, cultures, and traditions of homelessness, including “City-Wide Sweeps of the Homeless,” in The SAGE Encyclopedia of Surveillance, Security, and Privacy (Thousand Oaks, CA, 2018); “Homelessness,” in Global Social Issues: An Encyclopedia (Armonk, NY, 2013); and “The Phenomenon of Homelessness in the United States,” in Traveling Subjects: American Journeys in Space and Time (Kraków, 2004).

Presenter: Rosemary Ndubuizu, Georgetown University
Rosemary Ndubuizu is an Assistant Professor of African American Studies at Georgetown University.

Presenter: Amy Wilson, New York University
Amy Wilson is a doctoral candidate in History of Education at New York University, and an adjunct instructor at NYU’s Steinhardt School. Her dissertation explores schools in metropolitan history, uncovering how educational prerogatives actively shaped decisions of local governance and political economy. She has presented at conferences including the New England Historical Association and the History of Education Society, and holds a BA from Loyola University Maryland and an MA from New York University.